Copyright ©1996, 1997 A.D. Sullivan
The major and the captain put the
ring and the bone fragments on the
table. They show her x-rays. They
talk about comparative anatomy and
She nods and pretends to understand.
In a dream, she saw him sit up in
the tall grass. It's me, mom, he
said, it's me. Then he lay back in
the grass and she couldn't see him
She wants to touch the fragments,
to feel them in her palm. They
sicken her. She must restrain the
urge to brush them off the table.
Myth Making in America
The MIA rose in the mid-1970s as a reaction to the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. Partly it was a gut reaction to America losing its first war. Former gungho hawks began creating myths which excused the loss, like how American soldiers weren't allowed to fight to their fullest. This despite the fact that America dropped more bombs and shot more bullets than fired in both world wars by all sides.
But the greatest myth was that of missing soldiers being held in the jungles of Vietnam. Ross Perot was among the great proponents of this myth and went to Vietnam seeking lost soldiers. But the real target of this myth had long been the American people. Chuck Norris and Sylvester Stallone came alive on the big screen with films creating the imaginary jungle world. And Americans who had watched the progress of that war on TV, learned to believe this fairy tale as truth.
The facts have always denied the presence of living soldiers in Vietnam after the war. The category of Missing-in-Action was a deceptive one. Most pilots listed as MIA, for instance, should have been marked down as killed. But the military system must mark a pilot missing if the body cannot be recovered or there is even the remotest chance of his surviving a crash. Eyewitnesses to many of these crashes said there was no chance of survival. But their MIA status remains unchanged.
On the ground, situations became even more confused as units became over-run by the enemy and bodies were abandoned by retreating Americans. Significantly, 18,000 American soldiers were killed by other American's "friendly fire." Most experts agree that many of the so-called missing soldiers are likely victims to the massive bombings which accidentally targeted American positions as well as the enemy's. The term "red mud" refers to bodies blasted into pieces too small to recover in bombing raids. Large numbers of such victims occurred during the 1970 invasion of Cambodia when the American military was reluctant to admit how many soldiers died. Since their bodies could not be recovered, they were listed as MIA.
Nor were all those listed as MIA truly missing. Several have turned up in the United States, victims of the paper work jungle of military bureaucracy. Some of these MIAs didn't want to go home. But supporters of the war often cling to the MIA issue in order to keep the Vietnamese as enemies, unwilling to forgive them for winning a war against us. These people do not readily admit that there have been MIAs in every war: 19,000 in World War II, another 7,000 missing in Korea. But there are no photographs of captive Americans in the mountains of Germany or jungles of Japan.
Many of the families of MIAs cling to the slim hope of recovering their loved ones alive, spending fortunes to con men for news or photographs clipped from the pages of foreign newspapers.
But the story has been told so often and through so many popular fictions that Americans have come to believe it, as part of an entire package of deliberate fabrications that allow right wing hate-mongers to maintain power.
Missing In Action
Hare's dented gypsy cab was waiting outside hours later, when the feed had finished and the sheltered masses had wandered back into the streets to do their daily ritual of begging and stealing and selling. Delancy had lingered in the kitchen for longer than needed, watching Ashaki as she guided her help through clean up. There would not be another meal till nightfall, and she shooed him out finally, telling him she needed her rest, too.
Hare cursed as he came around the car. "So there you are!" he bellowed. "I've been searching for you for hours."
"What for?" Delancy asked. "You have a cigarette?"
Hare flipped one out of a Marlboro pack and lit it with a butane. "Bad news," he said finally when Delancy had sucked in enough smoke to ease the need for nicotine.
"What? More cops?"
"No, Poncho and Turnkey. The cops found their bodies this morning. They froze to death in one of the old buildings."
"I think they got confused. It was the place cops raided last week. I figure they didn't know about the move until it was too late to ask anyone and stayed with some Junkies overnight. A small fire broke out and attracted the attention of the man and there they were."
"Damn!" Delancy yelled, banging his hand into the cold spiked fence. The cold metal bit at his flesh with flakes of rust and shooting pain. "I knew I should have announced the change better. Word of mouth is just too damned slow."
"Well, you can't advertise on television," Hare said. "I mean the cops find these places quick enough as it is."
"But a poster or something might have helped."
"Poncho couldn't read anyway, and Turnkey was near blind."
"Still, I should have done something. Damn! Whose got the bodies now?"
"The Belleview morgue."
"And the families?"
Hare's face crinkled with distaste. "If anybody wanted them, they would have claimed them when they were alive."
"Not necessarily," Delancy said. "Maybe the city doesn't know where the families are. Neither one of them were anxious to have people know about them."
Hare grinned. "Hey! Poncho's still listed MIA and was proud of it."
"Can you find me some numbers for their families?"
Hare shrugged. "Maybe."
"Try. I'll be wandering around St. Marks, near Cooper Union. The cops raided it yesterday, I want to see the damages."
"Okay. But it won't be until later, I got some fares to the airport scheduled."
Delancy sighed and coughed and sucked on the last of the cigarette. "I don't think either of them's gonna wander off."
Delancy didn't head West right away. He stood and watched the cab vanish, metal scraping metal as it hit a series of potholes. Then, he walked slowly in the opposite direction, headed towards the east, down into no-man's land, where the neighborhood remained unclaimed by developer or police. The scattered remains of gutted cars were spread across the side street making walking or driving hazardous. He glanced up into the buildings at the broken windows of still occupied housing, the old tenements looking exactly as they had when he lived here as a kid. Only more lonely, lacking some important ingredient to make this place a neighborhood. It was a graveyard now, full of dead faces that occasionally glanced out at the street, mostly huddling around iron stoves if the gas was still on, or around the more dangerous kerosene heaters if it was not. Many of the buildings had been closed off by the city, many bore the mark of repeated fires, windows blackened out, walls showing the varying discoloration of different fires.
He was nearly at the old building when a kid stepped in front of him, an hispanic boy wearing t-shirt and cutoff jacket, but little else, hands gripping a rusted piece of pipe like a weapon.
"Hey, dude," the boy said, grinning, those his eyes were hard, and from the sound of shoes on the gravely walk, others had closed off the street behind him. "You know whose turf this is?"
"No," Delancy said, though he did know. "Tell me?"
"This is La Sangre's turf, man," said a smaller boy pulling Delancy around. A full dozen others lined the street with sticks or pipes, half laughing, but all bearing that same hard-eyed look.
"You don't belong here, dude," the first boy said, stepping to the side so Delancy could see him.
"Neither do you," Delancy said in a sad tone that drew a frown to the boy's face.
"Didn't I tell you this is our turf?"
"That's not what I meant."
"What are you here for?" one of the others asked. "Crack?" "To visit some old friends," Delancy said. "More precisely, to see where they died."
"You friends with those two old bums?" the first boy said, shifting his pipe a little.
"We served in Nam together."
"That's cool. But that don't mean you got a right to walk where you want to. You dig? I mean we can't let anyone come through here or everyone's gonna want to do it."
"You let my friends come."
"Hey, they was hurting, dig?"
"And I'm not?"
The boy looked straight into Delancy's eyes. The hard stare wavered a little on what it found.
"Yeah, you're hurting," the boy said.
"So show me where they died and I'll go away."
The boy hesitated, looking back at the others, and then he shrugged. "This way," he said, and moved down the right side of the block to an open door. It had been sealed by the city, but the firemen had chopped through it to get to the fire. The boy hopped through the jagged door and into the hallway beyond. The stairs had been removed. Part of the city's system of fighting reoccupation by squatters and homeless. The buildings were dangerous, they said. A ladder, however, had been wedged in the place of the stairs and the boy scrambled up it like a monkey, dragging his pipe behind. Delancy went next, and behind him others came.
It was cold here and the second floor still smelled of fire, though the stains of black seemed to have been contained to a single room.
"There!" the boy said, pointing into another room. "That's where the old men died."
Delancy eased in, stepping over fallen beams and clumps of plaster. A few old coats made up a poor death bed in the hollow of the junk. Something glimmered dully in the poor light.
"You have a flashlight or something?" Delancy asked.
"Hey, what do you think we are, NYPD?" the boy said, but produced a book of matches. Delancy struck one with his cold fingers bending the paper badly and crept closer under its brief illumination. He picked up the pair of dogtags and read off the name: Lt. Lewis Palonsky RA11773919. He clutched them in his hand as the match died.
"That it, man?" one of the other boys said.
"Yeah, that's it. Thanks," Delancy said, following them back the way they'd come.
"I got one," Hare said, shoving a piece of newsprint into Delancy's hand. "Poncho's family moved to New Jersey a few years back. The other one I couldn't get."
"This'll do," Delancy said, staring down at the paper. "Where's this Glenridge?"
"Fine. Take me there then."
"To New Jersey? Are you fucking crazy?"
"Tolls and gas is what's wrong to start with. And the state troopers over there are regular Nazis. They pull me over with the paperwork I got and I'll delivering meals to prison guards." "You exaggerate. You're legal enough. Besides, if you take local roads, you won't have to worry about state troopers."
"Even if I knew Jersey well enough for back roads, the local cops are worse."
"Here," Delancy said, pushing a crumbled ten spot into Hare's hands. "That should cover most of it, and if it doesn't, think of it as doing a service to Pouncho. We'll be bringing his body home."
"He didn't want to go home," Hare grumbled, but engaged the gears and made the series of turns that took him downtown towards the Holland Tunnel.
New Jersey was as foreign as Vietnam was to Delancy, a land of motor cars and smoke stacks and manufactured suburbs. So it surprised him when the cab came out of the twists of the highway into the meadowlands. And scared him, too -- visions of rice patties
and burning villages stark in his head. Even seeing the ghostly image of Giants Stadium did not completely ease the shock. His hands gripped the dashboard like a kid on a Coney Island ride.
"What's the matter with you, Jim?" Hare asked.
"Nothing's the matter. Just watch the road."
But the Meadows passed and the car clanked its way onto another highway, up long hills that led into the scattering lights of Suburbia proper. It was more diverse than Long Island, and not totally unpleasant, though he grew disoriented with the constant change of direction. There seemed to be little order to the lay-out of streets, and no sense of which direction was which.
Suddenly, they plunged into Newark -- New York's sister city which had predicted the Big Apple's decline. There were street people out, hugging themselves against the cold, gathered into clans that looked much like the Lower East Side's, and yet different, more
lost, their desperation written on their passing glances. Some of them cursed Hare's New York license plates. Others whistled calling mockingly for a cab.
But even that vanished and the city faded behind them into some middle ground, not suburb, not city, but a mixture of both's worst points, empty store fronts and go-go bars like some spreading disease. Delancy coughed.
"How far?" he asked.
"We're heading into Bloomfield. It's the next town after that."
The concept of towns bothered Delancy, too. It reminded him of villages in Vietnam, each a petty fiefdom complete with corrupt local officials. Bloomfield came in a flurry of stores, then vanished again. Glenridge was another matter, smaller, but a sudden shift from the shanty-towns through which he and Hare had just come. Imitation gaslights illuminated its narrow streets, emphasizing the set back houses and large lawns.
"I didn't know Poncho's family had money?"
"They didn't. His younger brother made some deals, flying in Heroin from Laos for the CIA."
They slowed before a large stone house. The walkway had a string of smaller gaslamps that vaguely matched the town's. The trees were thick with grey ribbons that had once been yellow. A tattered billboard stood disparagingly on the lawn.
"Will you look at that," Hare said, stopping the car before it. This was much older than the ribbons and the painted letters almost impossible to read. But Delancy knew them. He'd seen them a thousand times in his last journey east from California, hometowns decrying the soldiers unaccounted for, confusing MIA with POW. He shivered and felt the dog tags in his pocket.
"You want me to come with you?" Hare asked.
"No. I don't want to scare these people."
He climbed out. It was colder here, lacking the warmth of buildings which provided heat to the street, and the subways rumbling underground. All this seemed too solid, his feet hurting as they stumbled up the walk. More yellow ribbons decorated the door with a shabby American flag to one side, worn down by neglect.
He rang the bell. Chimes sounded in side, low and melodious, playing out some tune he should have known, perhaps a patriotic one considering the rest of the trappings. Footsteps followed it, coming quick up as the door opened.
A young man's face greeted Delancy. It was Poncho's face. The same age now, perhaps, wearing a suit without tie, the shirt open at the collar. He looked Delancy up and down and frowned.
"Can I help you?"
"Maybe," Delancy said. "Are you Poncho's boy?"
"I'm sorry. Louie Palonsky. I'm looking for Louie's family." The slight disdained look in the boy's eyes turned to alarm. "You knew my father?"
"Yeah, we served in Nam together. He was my CO."
"My God! Come in!" the boy said, opening the door so Delancy could step through. The interior was like some French Villa out on the perimeters of Saigon, dripping fancy stones and soft-colored drapes. Mirrors seemed to hang upon every wall and he felt small in the hall, looking up the twisting steps towards the second floor and a woman leaning over the rail.
"What is it, Lewis?" the woman asked in that nasal uptown voice that Delancy hated. All the wealthy seemed to take it on.
"Someone who knew father," the boy said. "From Vietnam."
The woman gawked, then hurried down the steps, her heals clicking against the tiled surface. She hurried towards Delancy then stopped, examining him as her son had done a moment before, looking at the ragged face three days without a shave, and the rough green field jacket which had long been patched and repatched, matching slightly newer jeans and scuffed army-issue boots. Only the name had worn away from the breast, fading with the memory of the service from which it had come.
"You knew my husband?" she said her nasal tone now distinctly full of disbelief.
"Yes," Delancy said. "I came because -- because he died last night and I thought you should know."
"Died?" the woman said, half laughing, half outraged. "What are you talking about?"
"He was in one of the old buildings. It didn't have heat. He and another man froze to death."
"This is a poor joke, sir," the boy said. "My father was lost in Vietnam, Missing In Action."
Delancy started to laugh. It ended in coughing. He looked at them and shook his head. "Missing from government accounts of him, you mean. There are people missing in every war. In ours, many of them came back not wanting to go home. Something had changed in them. Something made it impossible to go back to the old life. War does that. Your father was one of them."
He dangled the dog tags in front of them. "These belong to you," he said, dropping them into the boy's open hand. "The body's in Belleview morgue for you to claim."
"No!" the woman roared. "My husband's not dead! He's being held over there. Those nasty yellow people are holding him prisoner. We have photographs. We've seen his face. Get the photo, Lewis. Show this man the truth."
The boy hurried away into another room and returned with a hazy black and white photo framed in non-glare glass. Delancy looked at the four men pictured there. The original had been taken at a great distance, most likely from a hovering chopper. But it had been blown up so many times that the faces were mostly dots -- the shape of one looked something like Poncho. But who could tell?
"I've seen photographs of UFOs, too, ma'am. I don't believe them either. Who can say when this was taken, even if that was your husband. He's in the morgue now. Go get him, bury him. He deserves that."
"Get out!" the woman hissed, snatching back the photograph. "We don't need you or your nasty lies here. Get him out of here, Lewis."
"Please go," the boy said, taking Delancy's arm and leading out, easing the door closed behind him. He looked at the tags, then at Delancy.
"It's true, you know," Delancy said.
The boy looked confused. "But why? If he was that close, why didn't he come home?"
"Because he was ashamed to come home to you people after losing a war. America loves winners. That's what these yellow ribbons are all about."
Delancy turned away, easing back down towards the waiting cab. He made it to the door, but fell against it, coughing and weak, when he finally snapped it open and climbed inside, Hare waited. "Well? How did it go?"
"As well as can be expected. Let's go home, Hare. All this clean air is making me sick."
I respond. Lost and naked in Society's funhouse. And I wake to the question of attraction. What makes me desire? I know society pushes its tastes into my brain. Fashion designs eliciting predictable responses from me with the push of a button or the publishing of an ad. TV and magazines establishing the look and sound of sexuality for our day.
It's a game. Everything is sold wholesale. A new prostitution in which one's body is pillaged without being touched. We are mind-raped. The theory of advertizing being: the one who controls the crotch; controls the mind. Beer commercials telling us we are macho men as our bellies expand.
And I haven't lived up to its standards -- somehow managing to resist the temptations of the local bar, or mall, or latest movie -- eliminating television largely from my life.
It sucks at the soul. It creates realities which do not exist beyond the limited frame of its lens. We believe it as truth and accept its little dictators. Reagan rants from the screen nightly with his attempt to replace Carter as president, made more real by his experience with the camera.
He is a product like soap suds to relieve the ring of inflation from the nation's collar. He is the peak of Madison Avenue's sales pitch, the perfect puppet. A mindless bit of propaganda, preaching new morality -- using media the way advertisers have for years to manufacture a need. Set a new standard over which neighbors must compete.
And yet, deep down it drives us to despair. We don't understand the lack of control over our own lives. We stop voting. We cease to care. We lose the spark of that thing inside us which has always made us human, buying out of reaction or compulsion while our children drive cars into trees. Accident? Or has all hope been manipulated out of us? Does there come a saturation point when the messages and our minds melt down into some primeval goop out of which thought is once again impossible? And response, unpredictable?
On Being Fifty-Four
I'm told by my wife almost every day to count my blessings. That's an old mid-western colloquialism. But she's right. I do have blessings. Material, emotional, and spiritual. My material blessings can be listed easily. I own a few books and have some funds in a pension plan.
My emotional inventory is more complicated. It comprises an energetic will, a fairly alert mind, a Dutch resolve, a bunch of loving feelings for people places and things, an extistentialistic outlook, a common-place need for stability and order, and a reasonably optimistic outlook.
Spiritually, my list begins with Patricia, to whom I owe my rebirth and life. There's Tracy, my surviving daughter, Carole, Michael, my father, with whom I share the pains and achievements of our family's blood. There are my friends, who number few and seem remote, but are "there" for solace and joy. There is my life with "ideas" which has been my church, my faith and my devotion. There is more thought now about where I came from, not where I am going. Where I am going is now fairly well determined. There is a world "out there" which fascinates and angers me. But that is the case with all humans, I would think. There are laws of nature, the human situations and the pensive thoughts that roam around in my mind.
It was Yeats who said something about the center holding while all else around us is crashing. One has a right to make a wish on the birth day, and today it is only that the center will hold for me. This is a blessing that comes from an entity I know nothing of, but can only hope exists and will respond.
A famous course we entered
in order to relax, drink beers
and watch the teacher clown about
the middleclass vrs. the radical,
about a time we thought we knew
from the television of our childhoods,
only to see, instead, the CIA bullet
explode Kennedy's brain, again and again
like an over-ripe watermelon.
We heard the painful, visionary
feedback of young voices gone harsh
in rhetoric, young trying to be heard
over the body count. I had thought
I knew the old albums after
listening to them backwards
and forwards, listening for clues,
but I had not truly heard.
That semester, John Lennon was shot
and the teacher cried to himself
with his back to us, while he played
a whole side of "Working Class Hero."
He told me once, in tears, he thought
I hated him. But, man, when they shot
your hero in the streets of Dallas, Texas,
when they shot your hero in New York City;
when they shot you, too, man,
they shot me, my murdered future,
my martyred childhood.
I love you, man.
c/o A.D. Sullivan
271 Terrace Avenue
Jersey City, NJ 07307